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Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, or Emmanuel Sanders?: Finding Fantasy Value in the 2021 Buffalo Bills’ Passing Game

The Buffalo Bills' passing game is filled with fantasy potential, but which receiver outside of Stefon Diggs should you be targeting in your drafts?

Although Josh Allen is the best draft pick of the modern Buffalo era, it’s offensive coordinator Brian Daboll who makes this Buffalo Bills’ offense such an enticing fantasy football team. Daboll spent a combined 14-years working under Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, compiling five Super Bowls and one college National Championship. He saw his QB1 mentee, Jalen Hurts, get selected as the 53rd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Of course working under Belichick and Saban has its perks. However, Daboll’s most meaningful connection may have come from his time as a volunteer assistant at the College of William and Mary in 1997 where he met then-All-Conference safety Sean McDermott. On January 11th, exactly 20-years later, McDermott was hired as head coach of the AFC East’ Buffalo Bills. Within three days, McDermott would announce Daboll as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Building An Offensive Juggernaut

The duo spent their first season together establishing the run with quarterback Tyrod Taylor at the helm. The run-first formula was tried again in 2018, after drafting Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick. Running the ball at the league’s second-highest first-half early-down rate (FH/ED), Buffalo dropped to a 6-10 record, finishing third in the AFC East. A lightbulb seemed to flicker in 2019 though as the Bills increased their FH/ED passing rate by a total of 7%, with downfield speedster John Brown seeing 35.63% of the team’s targeted air yards share (9th in the NFL).

That offseason, the front office went all in on Allen, trading for PFF’s No. 5 ranked player in yards per route run (Y/RR, min. 75 targets), Stefon Diggs. The Bills proceeded to take 2020 by storm, shredding defenses with the league’s second-highest FH/ED passing rate (64%) and finishing with the fifth best offense in the league (per NEFF Rating). They took the top spot in the AFC East (13-3), ending New England’s 11-year reign atop the division.

Josh Allen finished top 5 in both passing yards (4,544) and passing touchdowns (37), adding 421 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground. He finished the seventh best QB in 2020 (per QPI Rating) ahead of Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Justin Herbert. Like their FH/ED passing rate, Allen’s Completion Percentage Above Expectation also flipped from second-worst (-7.7%) in 2018 to second-best (4.6%) in 2020.

Stefon Diggs, meanwhile slammed the door shut on concerns over first-year performances by receivers on new teams, finishing first in the league in targets (166), receptions (127), receiving yards (1,535), while maintaining his No. 5 status in Y/RR (2.51) on top of it all.

Finding A Piece Of This Passing Game

Stefon Diggs is set to yet again be the Bills No. 1 receiver and is a top 5 option this year in fantasy at the position. But Diggs is going to cost you—he’s currently being drafted as the WR3 at the start of the second round in .5PPR. For such an explosive offense, the No. 2 receiver in Buffalo also offers plenty of fantasy potential. That battle comes down to three players: Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and free agent signee Emmanuel Sanders. (ADP from ESPN, FantasyPros .5PPR, and Underdog.)

PlayerESPN ADPFantasyPros ADPUnderdog ADP
Cole Beasley10.11/WR4910.02/WR4613.04/WR61
Gabe Davis14.03/WR7415.09/WR6410.10/WR58
Emmaneul Sanders14.03/WR7220.11/WR7414.04/WR65

Two narratives have drastically impacted Buffalo pass catcher ADPs in recent weeks. First, Cole Beasley’s threat to retire over the NFL’s new COVID-19 vaccine protocols. Second, the Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia emphatically reporting that Emmanuel Sanders is primed to take over as the team’s No. 2 receiving weapon, in place of the now-Las Vegas Raider John Brown.

As chronicled by Establish The Run’s Michael Leone in his free Monday Market Report pieces, both Emmanuel Sanders and Gabe Davis have seen their ADPs rise across the industry with a special emphasis on Sanders, in light of the more recent Buscaglia piece.

Who’ll Be the Bills No. 2 WR?

The case for Cole Beasley is relatively simple. Through his two seasons in Buffalo, 2019 and 2020, Beasley has logged the second and third most snaps on the team. His slot receiver snap rate has remained unflinchingly ahead of his teammates—75.2% and 88.8%. Missing just one game each year, his nearly identical target totals (106 and 107) solidify the clarity of his role. Should Joe Buscaglia’s prediction come true—that Emmanuel Sanders was brought in to replace Z-receiver John Brown—Beasley’s role remains untouched. The .5PPR results of Beasley’s last two seasons? WR34 and WR26. His 2021 aggregate ADP of WR52, from the data listed above, is offering a massive edge to informed early-drafters.

Turning our attention to Gabe Davis, the rookie wide receiver surprisingly had a high snap count in 2020 (797). Buscaglia explains it away in his article as merely fallout from John Brown’s repeated inability to suit up. A likelier alternative to that narrative is the idea of Davis being drafted to one-day replace Brown, upon the veteran’s impending departure.

When picking between Davis and Sanders, Buscaglia brings up the veteran wide receiver’s route running as sharing strong overlap with the routes most commonly run by Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley:

“When you dig a bit deeper into Sanders’ route-running profile for the Saints in 2020, you’ll see his three most commonly run routes were the same as both Diggs and Beasley, featuring the hitch, the out and the go route.”

A similar point is made about Sanders’ superiority over Davis in the intermediate area of the field, where Diggs and Beasley likewise excel. Given the fact that Davis (15.9) and Brown (12.8) soundly led the team in average targeted air yards, it seems strange to conclude that Sanders (9.4) would have anything to do with Davis in this regard. Davis was clearly operating as Brown’s primary backup in the Z-receiver role.

Regardless, this data is somehow then concluded with the idea that we should expect Sanders to take over the Z-role because Sanders runs the routes that “the Bills love to run”. It seems to me, the Bills would be wiser to have Sanders double as the primary reliever for both Diggs and Beasley.

Diggs, the youngest of the trio, could certainly benefit from a 10% reduction in playing-time during the NFL’s upcoming, first ever 17-game season. Beasley could also benefit from 15%+ reduction in playing-time, now another year older. Sanders, one of the league’s long established premier route runners, could easily hold his own playing at a 25%-50% clip rather than as a full-time player. Let’s not forget that Sanders is 34-years old, playing on an Achilles that was repaired after a complete rupture in 2018. With the complete lack of passing game development from the tight end and running back positions, Sanders can take on a meaningful role in this offense without being expected to take the job of the up and coming second-year downfield dynamo, Gabe Davis.

Drafting the Bills’ Receivers

Early drafters should make it a priority to draft all three of these undervalued receivers. Cole Beasley will continue to provide solid weekly flex value with some match-up-based spiked weeks in play. Emmanuel Sanders can operate as a regular contributor behind both Diggs and Beasley, with a little Gabe Davis-relief sprinkled on top. Davis should handily assume the full-time Z-receiver role that the team was evidently grooming him for last year while Diggs competes for fantasy’s overall WR1 honors.

Given the expected sole ownership of a featured role, Davis should be the primary fantasy draft target of the non-Diggs crowd, with Beasley hot on his heels. Personally, I’m not buying the Sanders hype.